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The violent spectacle of the ‘games’, and their relationship with Roman culture and Christian martyrdom, is a central focus of this essay, as it is from this ground that both traditions build their perspective traditions of self-sacrifice. And it is ultimately in this ground that we see the genesis and differentiation of the Christian Martyr tradition. Understanding the spirit of self- sacrifice in Rome, or the attitude of Perpetua and the other martyrs to their executions in the arena, requires an understand of the tradition of roman Blood spectacle, and how the martyrological tradition subverted it

In his study of Christian and Roman reactions to public spectacle Carlin A Barton identifies an economic trend of ‘waste’ in the public spectacles, an inordinate expenditure of wealth and life; in discussing his theory of a ‘general economy’ Bataille relies on the same example, the potlatch, for the same reason: to describe the act of murder and sacrifice in the context of a wasteful expenditure of wealth. As we will see, Bataille extends this, both into political and cultural dimensions. Describing the Roman attitude toward blood sport and spectacle Barton says.

Potlatch mentality characterized the Romans: honor was connected with largesse, with lavish expenditure and wasting even to the point of destruction…destruction was a superior form of sacrifice. Self-destruction was the supreme form of munificence: the extremes of excess and deprivation at once.1

The games evolved and shifted in popularity and purpose over the years, but the brutality and complexity of the attractions always became more complex. As the Christian persecutions began they were used as fodder, not as gladiators in comparatively honorable indentured combat, but in cruel and violent executions alongside slaves and criminals. There was no hope for honor or salvation, the Roman blood sport reduced the Christians to a social position lower than animals, they were capital, to be expended in the promotion of a public spectacle.

When damnati were abused and humiliated in the people’s arena, for their reassurance and amusement, the people were pleased. In the later persecutions, presented as ‘for the public good’. There was little compassion, except occasionally in the minds of martyrologists.2


The martyrs would not behave like criminals and slaves, according to their traditions, and would baffle and anger audience with their readiness to die. Though they enraged the Romans by subverting these central social themes, these concepts of bravery in the arena, of an honorable death, are drawn from the Roman example. “Romans took spectacular executions for granted, but Christians immortalized the deaths and disposals of Christians in spectacles.”3 By dying in the arena, braving the worst excesses of the Roman Empire, and staying true in one’s veneration for God, in death one became a part of a greater, more subtle community. The death of the martyr, provided a witnesses or a literary tradition, was an act which would continue the tradition itself, and would remove the martyr from the world of suffering and elevate them, to heaven and to a part of the cultural tapestry of Christianity. Martyrdoms were hugely influential, and Christians sought out martyrdom actively, braving the worst torments and horrors in radical acts of self-sacrifice. “In Christian eyes the volunteerism, even the enthusiasm, of martyrs for death ‘sacralized’ them as worthy of sacrifice and resurrection, but in Roman eyes they were disturbing, threatening heretics.”4

Roman honor was epitomized in tales of glorious self-sacrifice, especially those of soldiers fighting bravely to the last man.5 One could not lay down their hands in battle, or run from their crimes; death, and a proper death, was a heavy concern for the Romans. “The filament of a Roman’s honor was preserved by a wall of inhibition, or etiquette, of religio, of pudor… to be violated was to be dishonored, humiliated, desecrated, castrated, reduced to dirt, extinguished.”6

Contrarily, the honorable death of the Christian embodies none of this pride; the attitude is not one of ferocious recklessness but of suicidal conviction. The martyr will die, he will hurt no one, and he will acquiesce to any suffering or shame the Roman arena will present to him. All the while, alchemically converting the dehumanizing spectacle of the blood sport into a personal spiritual act, a private crucifixion, and a personal communion with the sacrificed God.

Just as the Roman games blended religious and social ritual, promoting the values and narratives of the state, martyrdom fulfilled a similar multivalent role for Christians. The martyr contributed to a growing corpus of literature and tradition functionally ‘growing’ and thus perpetuating the martyrological tradition. The martyr had to embrace their suffering and degradation; otherwise they were only a tool of the Roman entertainment industry. Transforming their expenditure at the hands of the Roman state into a personal spiritual quest (but one undertaken in service of the Christian community) the martyr overcomes their persecution and achieves a spiritual milestone, while simultaneously promoting the greater martryological tradition. Martyr accounts, especially Perpetua’s diary, overflow with examples of the cheering, elated crowd being driven to awkward boos and even anger by the perplexing display of the Christian’s honorable death. “The Martyrs’ compliance in their own deaths and their defiance of authority infuriated spectators.”7 Instead of fighting, or fleeing, for their lives the martyrs sought out death with the same fanaticism that the gladiators pursued survival.  In fact, just as the Roman state sought to make the Christian an object expended for their pleasure, distorted and transformed for the Romans’ enjoyment, the martyr subverts the Roman ideal, using the arena for their own purposes.

Part III. The Accursed Share. Economy or Decay?

1 Barton, 47

2 Kyle, Donald G. Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome. London: Routledge, 2001. 245

3 ibid, 243

4 ibid, 248

5 Kyle, 45

6 ibid,

7 Kyle,248

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